Unity Govt And The Challenge For Malaysian Civil Society
From Kua Kia Soong
Did you hear the voices calling on the 10th prime minister not to appoint those politicians facing corruption charges to his Cabinet?
It is clear these sanctimonious voices are concerned that Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who has just brokered Anwar Ibrahim into the Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional coalition, could become a minister in the unity government.
Then again, did you hear the same sanctimonious voices calling on then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad after GE14 to do the same, namely, not to appoint politicians facing corruption charges to the Cabinet? And when Lim Guan Eng was appointed finance minister, did anyone in PH or in civil society make any objections? I did not hear any.
The big eye-opener for me reading Tommy Thomas’ memoir was how he lobbied to be the attorney-general under a prospective PH government as far back as GE13. Together with other erstwhile NGO activists who were quick to accept career opportunities from PH after GE14, this reeked of career opportunism after decades of struggle by civil society for the progressive society that neither BN nor PH have been able to provide. And after he was reinstated as the AG after the first fright, Thomas expressed so much gratitude to Mahathir right up to the last page of the book.
Malaysia’s new normal of a political revolving door since GE14, namely, the circus of interchangeable coalitions, is proving to be also a game of revenge prosecutions. Yes, Thomas’ memoir meticulously chronicles the way he brings the corrupt BN politicians to book over the 1MDB and other scandals after 2018. The PH government fell in 2020 simply because Mahathir lost the plot, and we began to see the reopening of the corruption cases involving PH politicians and which were rather foolishly dropped by the PH government and its AG after GE14.
Could Thomas defend public integrity in Lim’s previous corruption case? If he was the judge in this case, he could no doubt recuse himself. This is because before his accession to the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Thomas was Lim’s counsel in the corruption case against him and a vocal supporter of the PH coalition. The conflict of interest could not be more jarring.
Public integrity was on trial. The decision of the AG was crucial to vindicate the public’s interest in honest government and an independent justice system. In the “new” regime after GE14, the PH government and their attorney-general had made cracking down on corruption and restoring the public’s trust in government a top priority after the corruption scandal of the previous BN government.
Malaysia does not yet have in place an ethics commission, nonetheless government employees and elected officials have a responsibility to respect the law, act ethically and conduct their work in an open manner.
The AG’s duty is to help us know our rights and responsibilities under the law and actively prosecute officials who violate the public’s trust. The AG’s office reminds government entities of their obligations under these laws and how to comply. More than anything else, the AG cannot possibly act in a partisan manner when faced with a case involving a leader of his affiliated political coalition. To do so would be to risk scorn and the loss of credibility in our justice system.
Faced with this ethical dilemma and unable to recuse himself from the case, the only course of action left for the AG was to let the court decide. After all, as the AG, he must have some faith in the judiciary in this country. As it happened, the AGC subsequently decided to drop the corruption charges against Lim.
Did Malaysian civil society demand that the AGC provide a cogent explanation for its decision to drop the corruption charges against finance minister Lim? I did not hear any.
The PH’s “Reformasi” government must be seen to be more principled than the previous BN government, which let at least three of their menteris besar – Harun Idris, Taib Mahmud and Khir Toyo – see their day in court when they were charged with corruption. Lim’s case is not dissimilar to that of former Selangor menteri besar Khir, who was charged over his purchase of two plots of land and a bungalow in Shah Alam from a company. Lim was charged in 2016 along with businesswoman Phang Li Khoon with abusing his position as the Penang chief minister in approving a land deal as well as for purchasing a bungalow at below market price. He was also accused of abusing his power where he approved the rezoning application of two pieces of land from agricultural to public housing by MESB, in which Phang was a director.
Through the years, Malaysian NGOs have been playing the important role of watchdogs to ensure the rule of law and human rights are safeguarded. With the failures of both BN and PH regimes in providing good governance and the similarity of their race-based, profits before people policies, the challenge for Malaysian civil society is clear: Be the change we want to see, provide the progressive vision of a Malaysia we want, and be neutrally consistent in upholding the principles of good governance.
There is no room for opportunism among NGO activists if we are serious about taking our nation to a principled higher level. - FMT
Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram and an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.
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